TULSA, Okla. – In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a controversial compromise bill for welfare reform, promising to “end welfare as we know it.”
I was sympathetic to that goal at the time, but I’ve decided that I was wrong. What I’ve found in my reporting over the years is that welfare “reform” is a misnomer and that cash welfare is essentially dead, leaving some families with children utterly destitute.
Every year I hold a “win a trip” contest to choose a university student to accompany me on a reporting trip to cover global poverty in places like Congo or Myanmar. This year we decided to journey as well to Tulsa, in the heartland of America, because the embarrassing truth is that welfare reform has resulted in a layer of destitution that echoes poverty in countries like Bangladesh.
Recent research finds that because of welfare reform, roughly 3 million American children live in households with incomes of less than $2 per person per day, a global metric of extreme poverty. That’s one American child in 25. They would be counted as extremely poor if they lived in Africa, and they are our neighbors in the most powerful nation in the world.
So my win-a-trip winner, Cassidy McDonald, an aspiring journalist from the University of Notre Dame, and I interviewed families in Tulsa. Extreme poverty is not the same in the U.S. as in Africa, for America has better safety nets from the government and from churches and charities. But it’s still staggering, and instead of mitigating the problem, “welfare reform” has exacerbated it.
One of the people I met was Hailey, a toddler with blond hair, a winning smile and worrying prospects. She was born with drugs in her system to a young woman addicted to opioids, the family says, so she is cared for by her grandmother, Bobbie Ingraham, 47. Ingraham is clearly devoted to the girl, but she is struggling herself.
Ingraham acknowledges that for most of her life she battled drug addictions and committed crimes (mostly writing fake prescriptions for pain pills), and married a man who beat her and is now in prison. Ingraham recounts a litany of health issues – she spent eight days in the hospital this spring – that make it difficult for her to find a job.
She receives food stamps, and she has a home that she inherited from her grandmother. But she has zero cash income from work or benefits – zero! – so she can’t make utility payments, and her electricity, gas and water have been cut off.
These days, Ingraham says, she’s avoiding drugs and crime – she says she has been “clean” for 13 months – and she cried as she spoke of trying to raise a toddler on nothing more than food stamps and church clothing donations. “I just love this baby so much,” she says.
I supported welfare reform because initially it seemed to be working. Liberal predictions of children sleeping on grates did not come to pass, and on the contrary, there was a burst of employment for low-income single mothers as people moved from welfare to work.
But the employment bump stalled, and the replacement program for welfare, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, has pretty much collapsed, especially in Republican states like Oklahoma. There are now more postage stamp collectors in America than there are families collecting cash welfare, and so kids like Hailey grow up in chaotic households in which there is simply no money.
“Welfare is dead,” declares an important book, “$2 a Day,” an exposé of extreme poverty by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. It is their research that finds that roughly three million American children live in households earning less than $2 per person per day.
Yet it’s also true that the old welfare system was a wreck, creating dependency and cycles of poverty, as the real experts on poverty sometimes acknowledge.
“I think welfare reform was good,” Ashley Hene, 29, told me, even though she has run into the replacement program’s time limits. “Everybody was taking advantage of it.”
Stephanie Johnson, 35, who is raising four children through odd jobs, agreed. “If it was readily available, I’d abuse it; I’d say they’re giving me free money,” she said. “People use these systems as a crutch more than a steppingstone.”
So here’s where I come down. Welfare reform has failed, but the solution is not a reversion to the old program. Rather, let’s build new programs targeting children in particular and drawing from the growing base of evidence of what works.
That starts with free long-acting birth control for young women who want it (70 percent of pregnancies among young single women are unplanned). Follow that with high-quality early-childhood programs and prekindergarten, drug treatment, parenting coaching and financial literacy training, and a much greater emphasis on jobs programs to usher the poor into the labor force and bring them income.
President Franklin Roosevelt relied on aggressive jobs programs in the 1930s. Let’s turn to them again for people who can’t find work in the private sector. These measures won’t solve America’s poverty problem, but at least they'll give Hailey a fighting chance.